More D.C. area residents on the move for Turkey Day in '09

By Ashley Halsey III and Sholnn Freeman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 21, 2009

If neither the sour economy nor gas prices creeping higher will deter you from getting away for Thanksgiving, you can expect to share the road to grandmother's house -- or wherever -- with 823,999 of your neighbors.

The annual Thanksgiving travel survey by the auto group AAA found that 978,000 people -- 16.4 percent of the Washington area's population -- planned to travel more than 50 miles over the four-day weekend. Most of them, 824,000, plan to drive, although gas is 60 cents a gallon more expensive than last year, AAA said Friday. That's a 3.6 percent increase over the number who traveled last year during the holiday.

"When it comes to traveling over the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, it appears that we are still a nation of pilgrims, and that's especially true of Washingtonians," said Lon Anderson, spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic.

AAA's national office predicted this week that the number of people who will travel 50 miles or more during Thanksgiving will grow to 38.4 million this year, up 1.4 percent from last year.

"The travel forecast for the greater Washington area is more robust than the national travel forecast," Anderson said. "There are several reasons we anticipate an increase in the number of Washington area travelers. First, keep in mind that many Washingtonians are not native Washingtonians. They hail from elsewhere, and the lure of kith and kin and the tug of the heart and the hearth are powerful."

The strength of the Washington economy compared with the national one is also a factor, Anderson added. The Washington region "has the highest median household income in the United States -- $84,824 -- and one of the lowest unemployment rates," he said, "so, higher gas prices and travel costs won't necessarily deter [people] from traveling in greater numbers than last Thanksgiving."

However, 5.5 percent fewer Washingtonians are expected to fly to their Thanksgiving destinations compared with last year, Anderson said.

"Air passengers think the airlines will nickel and dime them to death with all the extra fees and surcharges, including an extra $20 each way for flying on the busiest travel days," he said. "At both the national and local levels, this year's decrease in the number of air travelers continues a decade-long trend in which air travel as a percentage of total Thanksgiving travel has declined substantially."

Since 2000 the number of Americans traveling by air during the Thanksgiving holiday weekend has dropped 62 percent, according to the AAA 2009 Leisure Travel Index. AAA's national survey predicted that the number of people who will fly to their Thanksgiving destinations will fall by 6.7 percent this year. The Air Transport Association, an airline industry trade association, has said it expects a 4 percent year-over-year decline.

Last week, James C. May, ATA's president, said the economic pressures, including record high unemployment, continue to batter the airline industry and are "anything but behind us."

Rick Seaney, chief executive of and author of popular travel blog, said airline ticket prices were in free fall between November 2008 and this spring. He said prices have climbed in recent weeks but have yet to rebound fully. Airlines also responded to the weak economy by cutting back flight schedules, which Seaney called a mixed blessing for air travelers.

"It means less flight delays and cancellations and less mishandled bags," Seaney said. "On the bad side: We've lost a decade of domestic aviation growth."

Travelers have sought ways around schedule cutbacks. Travis Jones Jr. of Chicago, who was traveling from Reagan National Airport on Wednesday, said he has purchased tickets for the holiday weekend to a smaller airport in West Palm Beach instead of Fort Lauderdale to save money. Jones said he started his search for tickets in August. He said he found that fares were way up, especially when baggage fees were added.

"It's not a great incentive to fly," he said.

Still, some people are balking at the long drives, too, deciding to stay closer to home for the holiday.

For the first time, Deb Litman of Falls Church said she invited her family to her house rather than travel to Connecticut. She doesn't like the hassles.

"If we drive, it's traffic; if we're flying, it's the security lines," she said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company